HL Deb 29 October 1998 vol 593 cc2080-2

3.22 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby asked Her Majesty's Government:

What arrangements have been made to protect the OSCE monitors in Kosovo.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the security of members of the OSCE Verification Mission to Kosovo is of paramount concern to Her Majesty's Government. That is why Britain pressed for the adoption of a new UN Security Council resolution making clear to President Milosevic the responsibilities incumbent upon him to ensure the safety and security of all international personnel working in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. NATO is working on options for a force to extract OSCE personnel in an emergency.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is she aware that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees made it clear at a contact group meeting on 23rd October that the overwhelming reason for a failure of refugees to return was their fear of being once again attacked by Serb security or police forces? The only reassurance UNHCR felt able to offer was the presence, on a 24-hour basis, of the monitors. Those monitors may be at risk of hostage taking and I therefore press the Minister to consider whether more urgent action might be taken.

When the refugees return, they will find nothing—no food, no shelter and no stocks for the winter. Will Her Majesty's Government consider the possibility of using NATO logistics to mount a major humanitarian effort of the kind that has been perhaps exemplified by the recent US airlift of blankets and health kits to Pristina in the last few days?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Baroness asks a number of important questions. I hope the House will forgive me if I take a little time to try to answer the points she raised.

The UK sent a joint Foreign Office Ministry of Defence team to Kosovo today to explore the scope for deploying an advance contingent of 50 British personnel to Kosovo to reinforce the Kosovo diplomatic observer mission. They will be integrated into the OSCE mission once it is properly established. We hope that that will be possible next week. Thereafter 2,000 monitors or verifiers will flood into Kosovo, along with the presence of the humanitarian agencies and the international staff from those agencies. We hope that we will be encouraging the displaced persons to return.

The noble Baroness again raises the question of the vulnerability of those monitors. NATO plans for ensuring that the mission members can be extracted in an emergency are being worked out as a matter of urgency. I am sure the House will understand that I cannot go into detail in relation to those plans, but I can assure the House that Her Majesty's Government are fully engaged in that process. The noble Baroness asked also about aid. I can see that the Front Bench opposite is becoming restless. Questions of aid are important and I shall be happy to answer them if other noble Lords wish to ask them.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I wish to ask two crucial questions, cutting aside the verbiage. First, is it not manifestly plain that the monitors cannot go in unless they are amply safeguarded by armed protection on the ground? Secondly, is it not equally plain that no monitors can go in while there is any prospect—and there is—that air strikes may be required?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I must remind the noble Lord that there have been 45 to 50 monitors in Kosovo so far this year. It is not verbiage to tell the House that a Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence team is going into Kosovo this very day to look at the logistics on the ground and, furthermore, that the NATO ambassadors are taking advice from military planners in regard to the safety of those people on the ground. It is not verbiage; these are matters of fact.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, can the Minister say how long it will be before the winter sets in and many of the upper villages become unreachable? Can she say also whether NATO engineers will have a mandate to use military equipment to open the routes during the winter?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, in relation to the last point I shall have to take further advice. I will write to the noble Lord on the use of military equipment for humanitarian purposes. The good news is that humanitarian agencies have been able to return to Kosovo. They have already resumed the delivery of aid. The weather is highlighting the urgency of that task. It is right that the UNHCR should focus on providing adequate shelter for those still living out of doors. There were 50,000 still living out of doors when your Lordships last discussed this issue. I am happy to say that the numbers are coming down and there are now only 10,000 people living out of doors. I am also happy to say that last week UNHCR managed to deliver aid to 100,000 needy people in Kosovo. I thank the noble Lord for allowing me to make those important points.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the UN Security Council Resolution 1203, to which she referred, once again fell short of authorising military action in the event of non-compliance by Belgrade? Given that both China and Russia abstained from that resolution, what assurances can the Minister give the House that, should history repeat itself in Kosovo, we will not yet again be a witness to the spectre of a "dithering and disunited" international community, as the Prime Minister's press spokesman himself described it last week?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am aware of what the UN Security Council resolution states. It fulfils an important function in reminding the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia of its responsibilities to ensure the safety of the OSCE mission members, the diplomats and the humanitarian workers. It spells out to the Kosovo Albanian leadership that it, too, must play its part in ensuring safety. However, the legal base of any military action is, of course, the same as it was when your Lordships last discussed the issue. The United Kingdom's view is that even without Security Council authorisation, military intervention can be justified when there is an overwhelming humanitarian necessity.

Perhaps I may advise the noble Lord that NATO intends to keep up the pressure on President Milosevic. There has been serious progress towards compliance with UN Security Council resolutions but only because of the continuing threat of NATO action. NATO will not lower its guard. It remains ready to act.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I see very clearly the difficulty in which Her Majesty's present advisers find themselves. I suspect—the noble Baroness might like to confirm this—that our allies are rather less keen on getting involved than we would think correct. Is not the noble Baroness aware that the danger that many of us see is the kidnapping of, say, 20 or 30 observers which would then make it almost impossible to carry out air strikes. The more pressure that is put on Milosevic when civilians are involved, the more dangerous it will be for those same civilians. I promise that I am not trying to make difficulties for the Government; I am asking this question with the maximum amount of sympathy. Can the Minister help us on this?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I note the spirit behind the noble Earl's question. Of course there are difficulties in using civilian monitors in that way. If there were no difficulties there would not be an MoD/FCO team going in today to look at the problems and the UN ambassadors would not be consulting military planners over the safety of those monitors. It is because the dangers are so clearly recognised that that vital planning work must go ahead. I am sure that the noble Earl is not trying to tempt me to reveal those details. I have given the House the assurance that that work is under way. The difficulties described by the noble Earl are fully understood. The seriousness with which this matter is being discussed at NATO is understood by all participants.